Being a Good Friend (Weekly Writing Challenge)

(It’s not my typical way of writing a story, but the Weekly Writing Challenge wanted me to be all personal.  So, I’ll tell part of a story that’s been three hundred and fifty years in the making.)

When we really want to hear, and be heard by, someone we love, we do not go rushing into noisy crowds.  Silence is a form of intimacy.  That’s how we experience it with our friends and lovers.  As relationships grow deeper and more intimate, we spend more and more quiet time alone with our lover.  We talk in low tones about the things that matter.”  Brent Hill, Holy Silence: The Gift of Quaker Spirituality

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“Why do I feel like I’m always the one talking when we get coffee?”

“I always feel like I’m unloading on you.”

“Now, don’t tell anyone else I said this.”

Much of my life is spent not talking.  As someone who slings coffee twenty hours a week, you’d be amazed, stunned, and entertained at the things people tell me.  When I go on a walk with a friend, odds are that they’ll have more to say than I will.  Oh sure, I have my opinions.  I spend hours a day thinking and arranging my thoughts.  However I can almost guarantee that I’ll be the quiet one.  And what can I say; it’s all in my upbringing.

Now, my quiet stance can be traced to my family numerous ways.  For one thing, we’re all nerds.  My brother, my sister, my mom, my dad, the in-laws; every adult wears glasses.  For each child that’s born, you should simply start taking bets on when they’ll get the ol’ four-eyes nickname.  It’s a foregone conclusion.  Our idea of “family visiting” is sitting in the same room reading our books or surfing our laptops.  That’s quality together time on our world.  Doctorates, analyzers, engineering degrees; we’ve got ‘em all.  I was taught about DOS prompts (ask your parents) when I was five.  We’re nerds who always have our noses in a computer screen or a book.  However, I think our religious upbringing plays the biggest role in me being slow to speak.

Nine generations ago my family started being Quakers (or Friends, if you prefer).  They tried it out a few hundred years ago, it worked for them, and it carried forward.  Now, here I sit, content with my religion.  Some family members have found different routes that work better for them.  (We still love each other regardless.  Honest.)  For me, I can’t imagine anything other than Quakerism.  I don’t like every single thing about my church, but the history works well.  I like how they treated Native Americans, women in leadership, and their roots in The Underground Railroad.  Also, and perhaps most pertinently to this, they are big on sitting and listening.

800px-Treaty_of_Penn_with_Indians_by_Benjamin_WestThere are two kinds of Quaker service, programmed and unprogrammed.  Programmed will flow like most church services.  There is a message, some songs, and announcements.  But my favorite part is where, for at least ten minutes after the message, we sit and listen.  We listen to the thoughts in our heads, to what God’s telling us, and to what our fellow congregants feel led to share.  Go with me Sunday morning and you’ll sit in a large room with a solid chunk of silence.  In this busy world, it’s quite freeing.

Unprogrammed is a more extended version of those ten or so minutes.  There is no planned message, no edict on how to proceed.  The gathering simply sits and enjoys the quiet until someone feels like they have something to share.  Many times there will be an hour where no one says anything.  Whichever service one attends, programmed or not, there is a concentrated effort to spend time in silence.

That works for me.  I wake up at four in the morning and spend a good thirty minutes reading my Bible, scratching the cat, and making very little noise.  When I get on the bus, that’s another thirty minutes for me to sit still, not listen to music or read, and try to filter out the noises in the world.  By the time I’m at work, I’m about as calm and centered as I can be.

When I find something that bothers me, I sit with it.  I turn it around in my head.  I try to figure out how this one incident fits into the big picture.  I can’t guarantee that I refrain from outbursts altogether, but my go-to behavior is to be quiet and think it out.  Save the discussions until I’ve fully formulated my thoughts.

That’s how I end up being the listener with most of my friends.  Even in school I was the quiet one, though comics certainly helped that along.  But when my friends and I go for a walk, odds are they will be saying what is important to them.  I’ll take what they say and try to listen.  If I feel like I have something to say, then I will.  However most times I’m supposed to be shut the sam hill up and let them vent.  I find that my friends need less advice in their lives and more hugging, so that’s what I do.

And yes, I realize that sometimes it is hard to get a conversation out of me.  I can go months without chatting with a new coworker.  I can spend three days sitting at home without calling or checking in with anybody.  I see the downside to the way I do things.  I’m certainly not the exciting one at any party.  Yet from where I’m sitting, I think it’s better to keep my trap shut, process all my thoughts, and then be sociable.  It’s worked for eight other generations of Quakers, so I’ll take my cue from them.

Swinging to Their Own Rhythm

In “Anecdotal Tales”, stories will be told. Some will be fun, some will not. Some will be great, some will be less so. Some stories are true, some are merely possible. This is one of them.

Swinging to Their Own Rhythm

Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.” -Mark Twain

Ralph was the type of person that seemed as ordinary as could be.  His frame could hardly be called tall or muscular.  He was just a little too short to be of average height.  His hair wasn’t buzzed, nor was it shaggy; it was in that rather standard range in between.  With brown hair and a perfect triangle for a nose, Ralph was almost the token definition of non-descript.  If there was anything Ralph was good at, it was blending in.

There seemed to be no job better suited for Ralph than that of a guard.  He spent his days surrounded by beautiful paintings and sculptures in the museum.  When he was feeling lonely he would stroll through the Edward Hopper paintings, when he was homesick he would walk up to the museum’s lone Norman Rockwell, and when he felt like life just didn’t make sense, he’d stroll down the wall of Impressionists.  Ralph liked art a great a deal; he appreciated how these artists could express themselves and their emotions in ways that others could understand.  Ralph had yet to master that a remarkable talent for himself.

Ralph’s skill for being unnoticed, however; that he had down to an art.  As soon as someone started to take out a camera or reach out to a painting, Ralph was right there.  The most common reaction was that of surprise.  Ralph never tried to walk quietly, but his gait hardly employed stomping.  People didn’t register his presence when they passed him in the halls.  Then, before they knew it, Ralph was standing by them; tapping them on the shoulder.  Once they recovered from the shock, many of the visitors putting their hands to their chests, they apologized and cooperated.

Ralph’s supervisors had seen how stealthy he was and how he approached quietly.  The higher-ups thanked him for being so diligent in his role, but asked him to try to make his presence known when a guest was first visible.  They offered that part of his role was to serve as a visible deterrent.  If patrons saw him and were reminded that there were rules, then perhaps he wouldn’t startle the guests so much.  Ralph had heard the suggestion repeatedly, but was unsure how to go about doing so.  A small man with a slight build and a quiet voice could hardly compete with the wonderful canvases and breathtaking installations that surrounded him.

There was one area, one lone activity where Ralph felt confident and bold.  The activity didn’t require him to be tall or strong or good looking.  All Ralph had to do was show up.  There was no competition involved, Ralph only had to participate and his world was made better.  Yes, despite his age, Ralph still received great joy from playing on swings.

Oddly enough, the swings were the one place in the world where Ralph stood out.  Walking around in the crowds and throngs downtown, Ralph was invisible.  His feet would get stepped on, people cut in front of him in line to get coffee, and bartenders always managed to ask for his drink order last.  On the playground, the situation was completely different.  It didn’t matter how many children or families were near the swing sets, if Ralph was there he became the center of attention.  He tried not to take away from the children’s enjoyment and was quick to give up his swing to any youngster that might want it.  Yet, even if there were no kids wanting to swing, Ralph remained a curiosity

The day came where he was about to give in.  Ralph started to wonder if he shouldn’t start enjoying the relaxing swing sets early in the morning when no one was about.  A mother and her small daughters were approaching and the eldest had a wary look on her face.  The playground had eight different swings to choose from, but Ralph still felt like he should disembark to alleviate her concerns.

As he started to slow the swing down so that he could casually walk away, Ralph noticed something.  Two squirrels were gathered at a large oak tree about ten feet away from the playground.  Both animals were standing on their hind legs, apparently arguing with the other.  They chittered back and forth as a lone nut sat on the ground between them.  The chatting and excited noises came out louder and louder.  Suddenly, the slightly bigger of the two squirrels took its right paw, swatted the other squirrel upside the head, grabbed the nut, and then ran off.

Ralph burst out laughing.  He couldn’t help himself.  The action had been so quick, so completely unexpected that he guffawed at their squabble.

The two girls opened their eyes wide.  They ran forward asking Ralph what was so funny.  He pointed to the lone squirrel that was recovering on the ground.  It shook its head and began to run off.  Ralph told the small children about the nut and fight.  The retelling of the story only made Ralph laugh more.  The two girls didn’t fully understand his story, but they laughed along with Ralph regardless.

The mother rushed forward, rather upset that the girls had broken free of her.  She stood there, taking the scene in.  Her two children stood laughing while a stranger in a swing chuckled and laughed with them.  The scene was an odd one, to be sure, but she couldn’t help herself.  She too started laughing.  Before long, the four of them were assembled around the playground enjoying the day and commenting on how nice everything seemed.

Ralph stayed up that night thinking about what had happened.  No one had pressured him to leave the playground that day.  If nothing else, he had made some new friends.  Ralph wasn’t about to invite them over for tea yet, but he doubted that he would feel awkward if he saw them again.  Ralph wondered if the day hadn’t opened up a new opportunity for him.

The next day at work, Ralph tested out his plan.  He didn’t really change anything about himself, but he did take things a bit less seriously.  Ralph stopped worrying about what people would think and loosened up.  For many years he had been walking around, looking at the paintings and chucking at some of the stranger, more avant-garde creations.  And one day, not too far from that happy time in the park, Ralph cracked a joke.

The visitor didn’t laugh out loud.  She didn’t burst at the seams.  She merely smiled and went on with her visit.  Ralph grew a little bolder from that success.  He made another joke.  After that came another.  It didn’t happen overnight, but gradually Ralph became something of a go-to guy for light-hearted visits.  He would kneel down to talk to small children and sometimes tell them a joke.  Ralph was never an intimidating guard, but he became more and more of a good-natured one.  By the next year, Ralph had received several letters complimenting him for making peoples’ visits more fun.  Children especially, thought he was quite delightful.  He only spoke a sentence or two, but those few phrases made all the difference.  And when he laughed, everyone around him chuckled along.

Ralph is still the same person that he always was.  He probably won’t stand out in a crowd.  Folks who don’t know him pass him by.  He is still “that guy in line at the grocery store” or “a neighbor I know”.  But once people get to talking to him, they laugh.  For Ralph, it’s a small thing; one he rather likes.  And now he fits right in with every other kid, big or tiny, that likes to play on swing sets.

 

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